Experts Agree That Some of Us Are Washing Our Face Too Much

Spoiler alert: If you have sensitive skin, once a day may be enough

woman washing her face Photo: Dimensions/Getty Images

How often do you wash your face? It’s a seemingly innocuous question, but it holds a lot of baggage—at least in the skin care community. Some skin care enthusiasts strongly believe that the face needs to be washed twice a day, lest the oil and grime accumulating in one’s pores over the course of 12 hours lead to unsightly breakouts, blackheads, and even accelerated aging. Others believe that “excessive” washing overstresses the skin, breaking down what’s known as the “skin barrier” which, in turn, leads to unsightly breakouts, blackheads, and accelerated aging. And some people (see: Cameron Diaz) don’t wash their faces at all.

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So which team’s our winner? Have I been overtaxing my skin with my twice-daily rounds with the creamy cleanser? Or do some YouTube influencers and beauty writers need to tidy up their routine?

“Bottom line is that there isn’t one right answer for everybody,” says David E. Bank, a dermatologist in Westchester County, N.Y. Instead, it depends on a variety of factors, all of which determine whether you should be washing your face two or even three times a day, or can get by with a once-a-day pass with a gentle cleanser.

“Regardless of your skin type, you always want to remove any makeup you wore for the day,” says Mary Stevenson, an assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Health. 

There’s also the issue of other materials left on your skin, such as pollution, dirt, and sweat, that accumulate over the course of the day, that you want to wash off, Bank says. “By the time you’re getting ready to hit the pillow, you may have sweat, oil, and a whole bunch of other things on your skin that you’d rather not have your pillow be rubbing back into your face.” Most people, in particular those who live in polluted areas (hi, New Yorker here!) or hot and humid regions, or are working out and sweating, generally want to wash their face with a facial cleanser at least once a day. 

A cleansing oil can remove dirt and makeup better than more traditional cleansers that use what’s known as surfactants, which are ingredients that help cleansers wash away dirt, according to Yousuf Mohammed, a senior research fellow at the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute in Australia. Fat dissolves fat, he says, which is how an oil-based cleanser can be effective at removing makeup and oil on the skin at the end of the day. Joel Cohen, a dermatologist at AboutSkin in Denver, Colo., says that those with oily skin may want to proceed with caution when experimenting with oil-based cleansers, though, because they can worsen acne for some people.

So how do you know if you should be washing once a day, twice a day, or even more? It all comes down to skin type—and how dirty you’re getting, of course. 

If You Have Dry, Sensitive, or Aging Skin . . .

You’re one of the lucky ones who should chill on the face washing (a note that I’m trying to take to heart, as someone with dry skin who’s been washing it morning and night religiously for years). “People with dry skin can limit face washing to the night, and just rinse the face in the morning to maintain natural oils,” says Shari Lipner, an associate professor of clinical dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. The same goes for folks with aging skin, whose skin may have more trouble producing its own oils than in years past. Keep in mind that your skin type can change as you age (which, by the way, can happen in your 30s—speaking from experience). “You might go from a twice-a-day to a once-a-day person” as you grow older, Bank says. This is because your skin can become drier as you age, as hormones change, skin renewal slows, sun damage piles up, and oil production decreases. 

Cohen says people who live in mountainous regions may have different skin needs from those at sea level. “There’s not a lot of moisture in the air, so people dry out more,” he says, adding that the wind and heating don’t help. These folks may be more prone to dry—and often sensitive—skin, especially in winter, and should wash their face in the evening with a gentle cleanser and follow with a fragrance-free moisturizer to combat the harsh environment in which they live. 

And yes: Dry skin is often correlated with sensitive skin. This is because the oil in your skin is protective, and when you’re not producing as much of that protective oil, the thin, damaged skin left in its wake can be more reactive to certain ingredients. “If you’re already starting with dry sensitive skin, your threshold is going to be even lower in terms of reacting to things,” Bank says. Overwashing the skin can lead to drier, more sensitive skin, as a 2020 study found. It looked at 999 people with rosacea who washed more than once a day, or who used a cleansing tool (for example, a rotating cleansing brush) more than four times a week, and found that they were significantly more likely to have a rosacea flare-up than those who washed once a day. The study had a control group of over 1,000 “skin-healthy” people who didn’t have rosacea or other major skin issues. 

“If you’re sensitive skinned, you want to be using a very mild cleanser,” Bank says. Look for cleansers that are labeled “fragrance free,” he says, because fragrances are the No. 1 cause of skin reactions and allergies. Note that this isn’t the same as unscented. Products labeled “unscented” can still contain fragrance ingredients that are intended to mask other odors rather than emit their own scent. 

And keep the water temperature moderate. “For most people, washing their face should be done with warm, comfortable water,” Bank says. Hot water can irritate the skin and cause dryness. 

At night, those with dry skin can try slugging, which helps the skin hold on to moisture longer.

bottle of face cleanser

Photo: Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images Photo: Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

If You Have Oily, Acne-Prone Skin . . .

You can probably get away with washing your face with (again, a gentle) cleanser twice a day. “Someone with oily skin can wash their face up to three times per day, but not more than that because overwashing can lead to more oil production,” Lipner says. “So this is really a fine balance.” If you’re not only oily but also prone to breakouts, you can consider using a cleanser with benzoyl peroxide, which is anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory, or salicylic acid, Cohen says. Some people are afraid to use benzoyl peroxide-based cleansers because they can bleach towels and other fabrics, he says, so he recommends that people with acne who want to use benzoyl peroxide cleansers use it in the shower and rinse well. If your skin tolerates it—that is, it doesn’t turn red, dry, and irritated after use—you can even leave the product on your skin for a couple of minutes before rinsing. If your skin type is more sensitive, and you find that intense skin care ingredients cause even more redness and irritation, wash the product off immediately rather than leaving it on. The salicylic acid cleanser, which won’t cause significant issues to fabric, can be kept next to the sink.

Almost every source I talked to, however, cautioned against using washcloths on the face. “Use your fingertips to wash your face,” Lipner says. “Using a washcloth or sponge can irritate your skin. Scrubbing also irritates your skin.” Pat dry with a clean towel instead of rubbing, she says. And all skin types should apply moisturizer after cleansing. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, people with oily, acneic skin should look for moisturizers that are labeled “oil free” and “noncomedogenic,” which means it doesn’t contain ingredients shown to clog pores. In the morning, do double duty by applying a moisturizer-sunscreen hybrid product. Just be sure to apply enough: the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends about a nickel-sized dollop of sunscreen for the face.

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How Do I Know What Skin Type I Have?

If you’re not sure if your skin skews dry or oily, there’s a pretty easy way to check. Wash your face and gently pat it dry. Wait 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, think about how your skin feels. Does it feel tight and sensitive? You probably have dry skin. Does it feel a-okay? You’re normal to oily. You can also be more precise by dabbing oil blotting paper to your cheeks, nose, forehead, and chin and assessing the paper’s transparency. If there’s no oil or transparency, or if there are little flakes of skin sticking to the paper, you have dry skin. If it’s totally soaked through, you’re oily. If it doesn’t seem too oily but there are no flakes, you have normal skin. Finally, if different areas of your face have different results, your skin is what’s known as “combination.” Combination skin types tend to have an oily “T-zone” (the forehead and nose) and a dry “U-zone” (cheeks and chin). 

You might also have sensitive skin regardless of where you fall on the oily scale. You can tell if you have sensitive skin by how easily your skin turns red in reaction to products or even water temperature. 

What About My Pillowcase?

Ever wonder if your pillowcase is causing acne? It might be, if you rarely wash it! “If you’re ultrasensitive [to breakouts], and you want to change your pillowcase every one to two nights, you can certainly do that,” Bank says. “Otherwise, if the household laundry routine is anywhere from one to two times a week, that may be fine.”

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Angela Lashbrook

Angela Lashbrook

I believe shopping should be fun, safe, and sustainable, and I shape my coverage at Consumer Reports around how consumers of all ages can have better shopping experiences. I’ve worked in media for seven years, and my diverse time in the industry has taught me that quality service journalism is a critical resource. When I’m not working, I’m usually reading, cooking (or, more likely, eating), and hanging out with my dog, a Libra named Gordo.